COMMENTARY: Trust but verify

Hank Slotnick web art.jpg
Hank Slotnick

President Reagan was the first person I heard invoke the "trust but verify" slogan in his dealings with the Russians, but not the first person I knew who employed that idea. The first person was my late father-in-law when he talked about helping someone of uncertain reliability.

Jerry, his wife, and infant daughter (now my wife) lived in the small rural town of Loyal, Wis., where he owned and ran a gas station and auto repair shop. I believe he and his family lived in a modest home next to the business.

Late one afternoon, a man drove up in a vehicle with an Illinois license plate. The man needed gas and repair of his car’s engine. So Jerry filled his tank (back then customers were not allowed to do that) and began making the required repair.

Jerry and the man chatted as he worked and so learned more about his customer. The man had left Chicago suddenly and was heading “up north” though he was not yet certain of where his final destination might be.

At one point, Jerry introduced himself, and in response the man announced he was John Dellinger, adding immediately that he was not John Dillinger, also of Chicago. He also implied that he was leaving Chicago less because he wanted to, and more because some friends suggested this would be a good time for him to get away for awhile.


The longer the two men talked, the more they came to enjoy each other. So, about the time Jerry finished the repair, he went to see how his wife would feel about putting John up overnight since he needed to be on his way at daybreak. I never had the opportunity to ask Milly how she felt about the man and why she agreed; indeed, all I know is that she did.

So, John Dellinger enjoyed a home-cooked dinner that evening, slept on the sofa that night, and left the next morning after a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast and paying his gas and repair bills. He thanked Milly and Jerry for their hospitality, got in his car, rolled the window down and addressed a question to Jerry.

“How did you know,” he asked, “that I wouldn’t leave in the middle of the night without paying my bills?”

Jerry smiled and observed, “I took the rotor out of your distributor before I went to bed and replaced it this morning when I got up.” For those of you unfamiliar with old cars, this meant the car wouldn’t start absent the rotor.

Both men agreed Jerry’s actions were simultaneously wise and very funny as Mr. Dellinger headed north to someplace he had never been.

But that wasn’t the last time he was in touch. He sent a coconut from the Pacific Theatre where he served Uncle Sam during WWII, and, after he returned and was discharged from the U.S. Navy at war’s end, he appeared one day bearing presents for everyone, including a grass skirt for Milly and Jerry’s now 4-year-old daughter. Sadly, and though she reports loving it, she no longer recalls what happened to it.

Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who, with his wife, winters in Pima, Ariz., and summers in Debs.

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